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What You Need To Know About Flu And Pregnancy

A flu shot's best beforehand, but presents little chance of risk during pregnancy.

A flu shot's important for people in general, but it's more important for people with weakened immune systems. That includes women who are pregnant.

The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for everyone age six months or older, especially those with chronic medical conditions and immune systems that don’t work as well, such as infants and the elderly.

“Pregnant folks have much less immunity to all diseases,” says Dr. Joseph Chang, the Parkland Hospital System's senior vice president and associate chief medical officer of Population Health. “Flu [is] one of those things that can hit really hard, really fast. For pregnant people, it hits even faster.”

And harder. Flu can progress to pneumonia more often during pregnancy, and the dehydration that can come with the virus can cause complications like premature labor.

It’s best to get a flu shot before getting pregnant, but during pregnancy is also fine. Dr. Chang says complications from a flu shot during pregnancy are very rare.  He also recommends the flu shot over the nasal spray vaccine.

Interview highlights

Why the flu shot’s important when pregnant: Pregnant people have much less immunity to all diseases. Because of that, all illnesses affect them more. Flu hits really hard, really fast. It hits even harder during pregnancy.

Why does it hit faster and harder? Because immune systems aren’t as strong during pregnancy, complications of the flu are felt more strongly. Flu in people who aren’t pregnant can progress to pneumonia. But during pregnancy, the flu progresses to pneumonia much more often.

That’s really the issue: It’s not that it’s a different virus. It’s that pregnant folks don’t fight it off as well.

Other complications: Your main complications are going to be mostly respiratory, and the end product is usually pneumonia. But in the case of pneumonia, you’re talking not only the hospital, but in some severe cases, the intensive care unit – and up to death. So this is a real problem. Dehydration can cause contractions and lead to things like premature labor, too.

Safety of the flu shot while pregnant: Problems from the flu vaccine shot are very rare, and certainly there are no more complications for someone who is pregnant versus someone who is not. So pregnancy should not affect whether or not someone wants to get a flu shot.

Is the flu nasal spray a viable option? The nasal spray is a live, attenuated virus. That means the virus has sort of been chopped off the knees. It’s weaker than the full blown virus, but it is still alive – whereas the shot is a completely inactivated virus that has no activity left. So, from a pregnancy standpoint, you’d actually prefer the shot.


Flu and pregnancy
CDC: Pregnant Women and Influenza
CDC: About Flu

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.